OpinionIran in the World PressDon't ask the CIA what's going on in Teheran

Don’t ask the CIA what’s going on in Teheran

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Daily Telegraph: If generals are fated to prepare for the last war, intelligence agencies always bear in mind the last time they were proved wrong. The ghosts of Iraq’s non-existent weapons of mass destruction haunt America’s latest National Intelligence Estimate on Iran’s nuclear programme. The Daily Telegraph

By David Blair

If generals are fated to prepare for the last war, intelligence agencies always bear in mind the last time they were proved wrong. The ghosts of Iraq’s non-existent weapons of mass destruction haunt America’s latest National Intelligence Estimate on Iran’s nuclear programme.

Having wildly overestimated Saddam Hussein’s devotion to poison gas and germ warfare, the 16 intelligence outfits dotted around Washington are treating Iran’s nuclear ambitions with a newfound and zealous scepticism.

They have also developed an engaging candour about the gaps in their knowledge. “We do not know,” reads the considered judgment of every US spy agency, “whether it [Iran”> currently intends to develop nuclear weapons.”

But that is the key question – indeed, the only question that matters. The goal of intelligence agencies is to discover the capabilities and intentions of their targets. In principle, nailing down their capabilities is the simpler task. Either Iran has a nuclear weapons programme or it does not. In theory, any facilities it may possess can be uncovered and their activities tracked.

Yet, in the final analysis, the thoughts, aims and priorities of the Islamic Republic’s key policy-makers are of far greater importance. If Iran did halt a nuclear weapons programme in 2003, as America’s spy agencies now say, this might have been a tactical move designed to fend off international pressure.

The long-term aim of Teheran’s regime might still be to build nuclear weapons, perhaps after a suitable pause designed to evade tighter economic sanctions and escape a US military strike. If the strategic goal remains unchanged, Iran will go about acquiring the means to make a bomb once it becomes expedient. Capabilities follow from intentions.

The inescapable verdict is that no safe conclusion can be drawn from the National Intelligence Estimate. Even the headline finding that Iran froze a nuclear weapons programme four years ago – and that it remains frozen – is qualified in the nuance of the text. There is a crucial difference between conclusions delivered with “high confidence” and those worthy only of “moderate confidence”.

Thus Washington believes with “high confidence” that Iran stopped its weapons programme for “several years” in 2003, but only has “moderate confidence” that this represented a “halt to Iran’s entire nuclear programme”. In other words, Teheran may have shut down some facilities and kept others open. As for whether it has restarted its weapons programme, the spies answer reassuringly in the negative – but only with “moderate confidence”. The problem for President George W Bush is that his agencies keep changing their story. In 2005, the National Intelligence Estimate concluded Iran was “determined” to build a bomb. That finding has been contradicted. This week’s judgment could also be overturned.

Hidden behind the work of every intelligence agency is the fact that they have their own capabilities and intentions to worry about. During the long saga over Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, it became clear that spies on both sides of the Atlantic succumbed to “group-think”. They all believed that Saddam had amassed poison gas and canisters filled with deadly germs. Every piece of evidence that emerged from inside Iraq was filtered through this prism. The intelligence agencies fanned one another’s pre-existing beliefs and in the process they infected their political masters. Everyone told everyone else what they wanted to hear. Jacques Chirac, who knew that French spies agreed with their British and American counterparts on Iraq, said that the world’s intelligence agencies were “intoxicating” one another.

Most dangerously of all, the spies gave the politicians intelligence which justified their policies. In a leaked memorandum recording a meeting of senior British officials in 2002, Sir Richard Dearlove, the then head of MI6, said that the “facts and the intelligence” were being “fixed around the policy” of the Bush administration.

Despite the lessons of Iraq, there are signs of the same tendency at work in Washington today. Both the State Department, under Condoleezza Rice, and the Pentagon, under Robert Gates, are united in believing that a military strike on Iran would be disastrous.

Miss Rice fears the diplomatic consequences, while Mr Gates worries about an overstretched military machine already waging wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Both understand that if Iran were attacked, it would retaliate by creating mayhem in Iraq, reversing the fall in violence and rendering the “surge” of extra troops an irrelevance.

So the National Intelligence Estimate represents a coup for both. They hope it will ensure that the Bush administration will go out of business in January 2009 without having bombed Iran. When the spies formed their judgments, did they completely close their minds to the fact that they were doing such a favour for Miss Rice and Mr Gates?

Of America’s 16 intelligence agencies, the CIA has the highest profile. Steve Kappes, its deputy director, is a Farsi-speaking specialist on Iran. He is, incidentally, something of a dove when it comes to policy towards Iran. But does the CIA really possess a real and effective presence inside the country? The experience of Iraq suggests otherwise.

Six years on, the CIA is still demoralised by the defeat represented by September 11. In order to prevent enemy agents from penetrating its ranks, the agency has developed elaborate security procedures governing recruitment and promotion. This makes it far harder for the CIA to operate effectively.

Before September 11, co-ordination between the array of intelligence outfits was woeful. There is little to suggest that it has improved, and the creation of a new director of national intelligence, supposedly with an oversight role, has simply added another layer of bureaucracy.

So a group of fallible intelligence agencies have delivered a provisional judgment, possibly with the subliminal aim – however repressed – of pleasing their political masters. Meanwhile, the central question remains unanswered: what are the intentions of Iran’s leaders? The spies do not know – and nor, for the moment, does anyone else.

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